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The State Fair, corny dogs and Texas-OU: ‘I wish we could go play today if we could’

Start ramping up the hype machine as No. 23 Texas prepares to face six-time Big 12 champ Oklahoma

Downplay it if you must, but Texas-Oklahoma is not just another game, as all the coach-speak would have you believe. Never has been. Never will be.

Texas-OU week is unparalleled in its buildup, and the game is unmatched in theater. Come to the State Fair of Texas, eat corny dogs, ride roller-coasters on the Midway and watch two true rivals collide in the Cotton Bowl.

“I’m from Arp, Texas, population 900 people,” Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said Monday. “You’re going to see that many people just riding in on the bus.”

Lineman Derek Kerstetter said, “You come to Texas to play in different games like this.”

Pro tip: Just because it’s fried doesn’t mean you should eat it, like the fried butter and fried bubblegum. “I probably don’t need it,” defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said.

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More:Even on rough days, Texas QB Casey Thompson’s confidence grows in key moments

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian can’t wait. The Apple Cup was nice. The Iron Bowl was better. But his first Red River Showdown is a chance for the No. 23 Longhorns to see where they stack up against the reigning six-time Big 12 champion Sooners.

“In the end, when you’re playing the team that over recent history has won the conference, well, here's an opportunity to basically see where are we at this point,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to find out. We’re going to see where we’re at.”

Texas wide receiver Jordan Whittington fights for yardage against Oklahoma linebacker Brian Asamoah, left, and defensive back Tre Brown during last year's game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Whittington has emerged as one of Texas' biggest receiving threats this season.

Sarkisian is a self-professed football junkie. He loves coaching it and consuming the game as a fan. So while he’s never walked that Cotton Bowl ramp, run onto the field to a chorus of boos matched by thunderous applause, Sark knows what Texas-OU is all about.

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“I’m fired up for this game,” he said. “To think this is the 117th time these two schools are meeting, that’s a crazy number. So from that aspect of it, the State Fair, all that stuff, I'm looking forward to.

“We put in so much work during the week so that we can enjoy the experience on game day,” he added. “That’s really our approach as an organization, but probably that's my approach, so I make everybody else buy into my approach. So I'm looking forward to it. I think it’s a great atmosphere, great event, great game.”

Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown picks off a pass against Oklahoma in the first quarter of last year's game, which the Sooners won in overtime. He knows how big this year's game is. “I’m from Arp, Texas, population 900 people,” he said. “You’re going to see that many people just riding in on the bus.”

Texas (4-1, 2-0 Big 12) is a team that collected itself the last three weeks since the Arkansas loss. 

Now, running back Bijan Robinson is the nation’s second-leading rusher and starting to attract Heisman attention. On Monday, he was named the Big 12 offensive player of the week for his career-high 216 yards against TCU. Kicker Cameron Dicker was also named the special teams player of the week for hitting four field goals in the 32-27 win.

More:After his career day against TCU, has Bijan Robinson officially entered the Heisman race?

The only major downside was that offensive guard Denzel Okafor will have season-ending surgery, Sarkisian said. Okafor suffered a leg injury against the Frogs. Also on the injury front, cornerback Josh Thompson has been cleared to play this week.

“Legs a little sore, but that’s just normal,” Robinson said in describing his body after a career-high 35 carries. “I’m sore after every game. But I feel good. I felt really good coming out of that game with that kind of workload. I’m just ready to go.”

And so is quarterback Casey Thompson. 

Thompson grew up in the Oklahoma City area and was Sooner born and Sooner bred, just like the fight song says. His father, Charles, led OU to an 11-1 record as a freshman in 1987. Then, Casey’s brother, Kendal, played quarterback in Norman from 2011-13. 

Casey Thompson said once the recruiting process began in earnest, he turned neutral on the whole Texas-OU rivalry. He said the weirdest game he’s attended was the 2017 matchup when OU’s Baker Mayfield outflanked UT freshman Sam Ehlinger.

For the Thompsons, Casey leading Texas into the Cotton Bowl against his family’s favorite team will be a central storyline on game day.

"It's a dream come true for me to start in this game, but I really don't think I’ll be nervous or anxious or uptight,” Casey Thompson said. “I’m excited to play. I wish we could go play today if we could.”

For years, this game has been something of a midseason measuring stick for both teams. 

Texas and Oklahoma fans cheer at the start of the 2019 game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. This week's Red River Showdown will be the 117th matchup between the two historic rivals.

No. 5 Oklahoma (5-0, 2-0) may still be undefeated, but it hasn’t been easy. Fans have booed quarterback Spencer Rattler, the preseason Heisman favorite, as the offense sputtered at times in nonconference play. Still, the Sooners have the nation’s seventh-best run defense. 

Texas coaches have long been judged by their performance in this rivalry. Mack Brown lost five straight to OU’s Bob Stoops before he could break the hex. Then, the Longhorns went on to win a national title.

Everyone thought Charlie Strong had turned the corner in 2015 when he knocked off the Sooners. Who can forget players throwing Strong into the air on the field and him crowd-surfing in the locker room? But Strong was dismissed after the following season.

Tom Herman had a breakthrough moment in 2018, his second year. Ehlinger led the Horns to victory over Kyler Murray’s Sooners and on to the Sugar Bowl. But that again was one-year wonderment. Texas dispatched Herman after back-to-back mediocre seasons in 2019 and 2020.

Texas coach Tom Herman reacts to a false start penalty during the 2019 Texas-Oklahoma game. He went 1-4 against the Sooners in his four seasons at Texas, beating them in the 2018 regular-season meeting at the Cotton Bowl before losing to them in that year's Big 12 championship game in Arlington.

Sarkisian doesn’t exactly believe in this being a measuring-stick moment, per se. Outsiders judge how Texas is coming along each week, he said. The Horns must “wire in, respect every opponent we play and make sure we're putting our best foot forward.”

“Ultimately week in and week out, we see where we're at,” Sarkisian said. “Are we making incremental gains to continue to get better? And I think when you take over a program, you always want the big leaps and bounds and the growth and all those things. 

“But for me,” he continued, “the positive has been I really believe that we're making incremental progress as a program in a lot of different phases, whether that's mental toughness, whether that's physical toughness, whether it's a style of play, whether that's recruiting, there’s a lot that goes into it.”

Beating Oklahoma would represent a major leap forward. And unlike last year’s pandemic-era game with one-quarter capacity, there’ll be a full house watching from the bleachers.

As Kerstetter said, “I’m just excited to see it get back to normal again.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.

Saturday's game

23-Texas vs. 5-Oklahoma, 11 a.m., ABC, 104.9